BRUSSELS (AP) – Amid signs that more infectious variants of the coronavirus are spreading unchecked across Europe, governments and EU leaders have worked hard on Wednesday to accelerate vaccine efforts that have been hampered by limited supplies and to finance ways to hunt for variants and fight them.
The European Union announced on Wednesday that it had agreed to buy an additional 300 million doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine and is injecting nearly a quarter of a billion euros (almost $ 300 million) in efforts to combat variants of the virus.
The news came just hours after Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they had signed an agreement to deliver another 200 million doses of vaccines to the bloc.
The EU Commission said its second contract with Moderna provides for an additional purchase of 150 million doses in 2021 and an option to purchase an additional 150 million doses in 2022.
“With a portfolio of up to 2.6 billion doses, we will be able to provide vaccines not only to our citizens, but also to our neighbors and partners,” said EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.
Von der Leyen and his team were heavily criticized for handling the EU’s vaccine procurement process. Although the 27-nation bloc began vaccinating its 450 million citizens almost two months ago, it is still far behind Britain, the United States and other countries in the share of the population reached.
Von der Leyen also revealed the EU’s plans to better detect variants of the virus and accelerate the approval of adapted vaccines capable of fighting them.
As the UK virus variant looks set to become dominant in the EU, the executive branch said it would spend at least € 75 million to support genomic sequencing and develop specialized tests for new variants. Another € 150 million will go to research and data exchange.
“Our priority is to ensure that all Europeans have access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible,” said von der Leyen. “At the same time, new variants of the virus are emerging quickly and we must adapt our response even faster.”
Germany’s health minister said that the virus variant first detected in Britain last year now accounts for more than a fifth of all positive tests in his country, rising from 6% to over 22% in just two weeks.
In Slovakia, which now has the highest rate of virus deaths per population in the world, the authorities found the UK variant in 74% of its positive samples.
Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said the UK variant accounted for 45% of cases analyzed in the second week of February and predicted that it would account for 80% of Danish infections in early March.
Scientists say the UK variant spreads more easily and is probably more deadly, but so far the existing vaccines appear to be effective against it. Another variant first detected in South Africa, however, showed signs of being able to circumvent the immune response generated by the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Authorities in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, have expressed concern that some people seem less willing to get the AstraZeneca vaccine than those manufactured by Moderna or Pfizer.
“The authorized AstraZeneca vaccine is not a second-class vaccine,” said the state health ministry. “The vaccine shows good efficacy and is well tolerated.”
The reluctance towards the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is only given to people under 65 in Germany, has been reinforced by reports that some people had a fever and headaches after getting the vaccine. Officials say such reactions are normal after vaccinations, show that the body’s immune system is responding and should disappear after a day or two.
Health Minister Jens Spahn said that if people did not want to get an injection of AstraZeneca, he and others would be happy to do it.
“If the people who receive the offer do not accept it, then we will offer it to the next person,” he said, noting that Germany and the EU still face a shortage of vaccines.
Pfizer and German partner BioNTech confirmed that they have also concluded an agreement to supply the EU with an additional 200 million doses of vaccine.
The two companies said that these doses – scheduled for delivery this year, about 75 million of them in the second quarter – come in addition to the 300 million doses of vaccines that the bloc initially ordered. The EU has the option of requesting an additional 100 million doses.
Vaccine shortages have been a serious problem in Europe.
Last month, Pfizer said it was temporarily reducing deliveries to Europe and Canada, while upgrading the production capacity of its plant in Belgium. The EU also had a public fight with AstraZeneca over obtaining fewer vaccines than expected. The head of AstraZeneca attributed the delay to the new factories that needed to solve the problems of vaccine production.
Spain’s leading coronavirus expert says that at current levels of vaccine supply, it makes no sense to create massive facilities to administer vaccines, echoing comments from U.S. governors, who also face shortages of vaccines in their states.
The European Medicines Agency, meanwhile, said it could issue an opinion in mid-March on a fourth vaccine, a unique version of Johnson & Johnson. The three other vaccines approved by the EU require two injections weeks apart.
Von der Leyen said the EU bought more doses than necessary because it wanted to supply vaccines to its neighbors “from the eastern partnership to the Western Balkans for Africa” - although some of those countries have already opted for vaccines from Russia and China afterwards to lose to richer nations in early bidding for vaccines.
Authorities in Berlin opened on Wednesday the fifth coronavirus vaccination center in the capital, located within a covered cycling arena. The vast Velodrom started with just 120 vaccines, but officials hope to increase it to 2,200 a day.
“We can’t complain,” said Dieter Krueger, who had been waiting in his recovery room with Ilse, his wife for 60 years, after receiving a vaccine from Moderna. “Things are looking up.”
Jordans contributed from Berlin. Geir Moulson in Berlin, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.
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